Friday, September 27, 2013

The Friday Four, Part 33


This past week has been premiere week for a whole bunch of TV shows!  I really pared down my list of must-see shows last year, but there are some I just can't give up, and couple new ones I have high hopes for:

Castle is in its fifth season and it just keeps getting better.  I'm excited to see where they go with Castle and Beckett's relationship this year and I can't get enough Nathan Fillion. He always makes me laugh out loud!

Person of Interest is starting its third year and I'm loving the growth in Jim Caviezel's character as well as the relationships between him and Michael Emerson, Taraji P. Henson and Kevin Chapman. Amy Acker does a fabulous insane villain. And the show has great action sequences, too.

The premiere of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. had me hooked from the first few minutes. I love how Joss Whedon uses some of the same actors over and over; it was great to see J. August Richards (from Angel) and Ron Glass (from Firefly) teamed up with Joss again. And the witty repartee was classic Whedon. Love!

We watched the premiere of The Crazy Ones starring Robin Williams (in his first regular TV show since Mork and Mindy!) and Sarah Michelle Gellar. I was pleasantly surprised by how well they worked together with SMG playing a sort of straight (wo)man to Williams's, well, craziness. And Kelly Clarkson's cameo role was hilarious!


We just finished reading Little Town on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder at bedtime. Toward the end, the town's preacher held a revival and one of the hymns they sang was this beautiful one called "Ninety and Nine":


Tomorrow marks the end of Banned Books Week. It's always shocking to me when I see lists of books that have been challenged or "banned" in certain libraries or schools, because they always include books that I love and value.  The Harry Potter series. The Great Gatsby. To Kill a Mockingbird.  Brave New World.  Fahrenheit 451.  I recognize that not all reading material is appropriate for all ages, but it takes a whole lot to convince me that the best option is to ban a book.


I ran across an article earlier this week titled "9 Ways a Theatre Degree Trumps a Business Degree" and had to smile.  I have made many of those same points myself and definitely feel that my theatre degree and experience have been invaluable in teaching me critical thinking, problem solving, crisis management, presentation skills, project management, team building and teamwork, versatility and flexibility. But what if you happen to have both a theatre degree AND a business degree?  Hmmmmm? :)

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Where We're Going and How We'll Get There

One of the suggestions in Bruce Feiler's The Secrets of Happy Families is to develop a family mission statement and core values. The purpose of the process is to "force everyone to sit down, talk about what they believe in, and articulate a common vision." Working together to identify their primary goal and values has a unifying effective on any group, including a family.

We'd actually already done something very similar to this before I read the book, and it's always nice to read an expert telling you to do something you've already done. Makes me feel like I'm doing something right...

Back when Will was in kindergarten we developed a set of five (at the time) family rules to help him figure out what behavior was acceptable at home and at school.  Will, who was five, and Josh, who was only two, were an integral part of the process and came up with some great ideas.  The only structure we parents imposed was that the rules had to be positive statements.  I didn't want a list of what we wouldn't do or allow; I wanted statements of who we wanted to be.  We've tweaked them a little over the past six years, and here's the current iteration:

1) Show respect for others.
2) Speak kindly.
3) Everybody helps.
4) Gentle hands.
5) Take care of our things.
6) Listen the first time.

We started reciting these rules together as a family every night at bedtime to reinforce the kind of behavior we wanted to see from our kids - and ourselves.  It became easier when something happened to just say, "What's rule number 2?" or "Remember rule number 3 - everybody helps," or "Is tearing that book in half really taking care of our things?" No longer was there a need to launch into a long-winded and ineffective lecture. The kids had better, positive guidelines that they were invested in because they helped create them. Remarkably, we have yet to run across a situation not covered by at least one of those six rules.

Eventually, though, we decided as a family that we needed more focus. We needed a single statement that could act as a mantra to remind us to treat others kindly. So we settled on the Golden Rule as our new family motto:

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you

We added that to our bedtime routine and it seemed to provide some of the context for our family rules. It was a reminder that the way we treat others doesn't depend on how they treat us, and that our actions can have a positive effect on those around us.

And that was working pretty well, but it still seemed to me that there was something missing.

So for Family Home Evening one night we talked about goals. New Years' goals, personal goals, family goals, goals for work or for school, just all kinds of goals. We decided after a great family discussion that our ultimate goal as a family is:

to return to our Heavenly Parents and live together forever

When you get right down to it, that's the whole reason behind our family motto and our family rules. We want to make good choices and become better people. We want to have good relationships with each other so that being together forever sounds like fun instead of punishment!

The six rules have been hanging on an increasingly tattered piece of paper on our refrigerator since we developed them, and we'd never come up with a visual reminder of the family motto and family goal, so I finally decided this week to make them a more permanent display.

(Please ignore the detritus that has accumulated above and below.) 

This wall-mounted, mirrored coat rack was a wedding present and hangs right by our front door. I like the idea that every time anyone leaves our home, there is a obvious visual reminder of our family rules, motto, and goal. It puts where we're going and how we're going to get there front and center, spelled out for everyone to see. Of course, we don't always measure up, but we're trying and we, both individually and as a family, are better for the efforts.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Book Review: Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli

Lots of teen romance novels are full of anger and angst, pain and passion.  Stargirl is remarkably void of all of that.  It's...sweet.  With a twinge of bitter tossed in to provide contrast and heighten the sweetness.

No sex, no swearing, no substance abuse, none of the hallmarks of a usual teen drama, and still Stargirl hits home.  Anyone who has lived through those tumultuous years will recognize the tension of not knowing exactly who you were or who you wanted to be, of desperately wanting to be as happy as you imagined everyone else was, of being so sure that if you could just find the right combination of clothes, disinterested facial expressions, and hobbies, you too could be "cool." You'll also recognize the hunger for the self-confidence to just be yourself, to develop your talents, to reach out to other people, to stop worrying about what others thought, and to pursue your interests without wondering if they were "cool" enough.

Like most high schools, Mica Area High School is "not a hotbed of nonconformity".  On the first day of eleventh grade, Stargirl appears.  Having been homeschooled her entire life to that point she doesn't fall neatly into any of the standard high school boxes.  She plays the ukulele, serenading students on their birthdays.  She decorates her desk in every class with a tablecloth, table skirt, and vase with a flower. She cheers non-stop for the sports teams - both of them - at every game. And she starts to single-handedly change the atmosphere of the school.
It was wonderful to see, wonderful to be in the middle of: we mud frogs awakening all around.  We were awash in tiny attentions.  Small gestures, words, empathies thought to be extinct came to life.  For years the strangers among us had passed sullenly in the hallways; now we looked, we nodded, we smiled.  If someone got an A, others celebrated too.  If someone sprained an ankle, others felt the pain. We discovered the color of each others' eyes.
It was a rebellion she led, a rebellion for rather than against. For ourselves.
Of course, the euphoria doesn't last and it's painful to see the student body turn against her. It makes me ashamed for any small part I played in my high school years in shunning or crushing another person's individuality.

But Stargirl is an optimistic story. Stargirl made a difference.  Leo, the boy who falls in love with her, describes it this way: "She was bendable light: she shone around every corner of my day.  She taught me to revel. She taught me to wonder. She taught me to laugh...She saw things.  I had not known there was so much to see."

The moral of the story is that we can each make a difference.  We can each change the world and influence others' lives for the better, if we refuse to be cowed into submission by the host of "shoulds" and expectations laid on us by others who are just as insecure as we are.  That's the type of person I want to be.

by Jerry Spinelli
ISBN: 9780440416777
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, paperbackebook, audiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Monday, September 23, 2013

Book Review: A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans

Rachel Held Evans has knocked it out of the park with A Year of Biblical Womanhood. Raised in an evangelical home and now a professional writer, she set out to discover what the Bible really says about being a woman.

After a year of faithful and dedicated application of various biblical passages, thematically arranged by month, and interviews with people as varied as orthodox Jews living in Israel, Amish mothers in Pennsylvania, evangelical (NOT fundamentalist Mormon!) polygamists, female preachers at mega-churches, and women living in destitute poverty in Bolivia, what Evans discovered was that there is simply not one single definition that can encompass the concept of biblical womanhood.

Woman have so many expectations and roles laid on them, personal, religious, social, cultural.  Evans breaks through all of them to hone in on the single most important one. "As a Christian, my highest calling is not motherhood; my highest calling is to follow Christ.  And following Christ is something a woman can do whether she is married or single, rich or poor, sick or healthy, childless or Michelle Duggar." We are called to follow Christ, and that may lead us in different directions from our sisters, even those who are also doing their best to follow Christ.

Of course, there are a multiplicity of denominations, groups, and organizations perfectly willing to preach (and sell you) their version of "Biblical Womanhood" emphasizing their specific cultural and social expectations, cherry-picking the passages they feel are important while ignoring others wholesale. And everyone is welcome to adopt the practices that they feel bring them closest to God. What is not acceptable, however, is condemning or judging others for making different choices than the ones you feel are best for you.

Evans uses the well-known story of Mary and Martha to drive this point home.  You all know the tale: Mary is sitting at Jesus' feet, learning from him, when her sister Martha asks Jesus to tell Mary to help her with her work around the house. Jesus uses this as a teaching moment, telling Martha that "Mary has chosen that good part." Evans elaborates: "Martha certainly wasn't the first and she won't be the last to dismiss someone else's encounter with God because it didn't fit the mold...I guess we're all a little afraid that if God's presence is there, it cannot be here." God, however, is not limited to a single method of communication. "Slow down, let go, and be careful of challenging another woman's choices, for you never know when she may be sitting at the feet of God."

Somewhat wryly, Evans states, "I have come to regard with some suspicion those who claim that the Bible never troubles them. I can only assume this means they haven't actually read it."  It never fails to surprise me when people claim not to be troubled by what I consider extremely troublesome passages, and there are more than a few, not only in the Bible, but in other books of scripture as well. Evans specifies only a handful: "Those who seek to glorify biblical womanhood have forgotten the dark stories.  They have forgotten that the concubine of Bethlehem, the raped princess of David's house, the daughter of Jephthah and the countless unnamed women who lived and died between the lines of Scripture exploited, neglected, ravaged, and crushed at the hand of patriarchy are as much a part of our shared narrative as Deborah, Esther, Rebekah, and Ruth."

Again and again she pulls in historical context to elucidate biblical passages.  I love her explanation of the verses in the New Testament about women submitting to their husbands. Based on the Greco-Roman household codes that were the cultural and societal standard of the time - including slavery - Paul updated them by counseling benevolence on the part of the master, husband, and father. And then Evans asked the big question: "The Christian versions of the household codes were clearly progressive for their times, but does that mean they have the last word, that Christians in changing places and times cannot progress further?" Absolutely everything in me screams "No!" We are meant to continue progressing and improving, not to be held back by a faulty understanding of God's will based on a social structure that is 2000 years old!

Another gem is her "take-back" of Proverbs 31.  In some Christian circles, the Proverbs 31 woman has been held up as the pinnacle of biblical womanhood, the perfect female whom we should all aspire to become, practically killing ourselves in the process.  Evans reframes this passage beautifully.  "In Jewish culture it is not the women who memorize Proverbs 31, but the men...Eshet chayil [the opening phrase of the poem which means 'woman of valor'] is as its core a blessing--one that was never meant to be earned, but to be given, unconditionally." As Evans explains it to her husband, "It's like their version of 'You go, girl!'"

The way we approach scripture, for example, Proverbs 31, has an impact on the health of our spiritual life and our relationship with God. It's not meant to be a club we bludgeon ourselves with. "We abandoned the meaning of the poem by focusing on the specifics, and it became just another impossible standard by which to measure our failure.  We turned an anthem into an assignment, a poem into a job description." Evans's year-long intimate interaction with the Bible highlights that scripture is not meant to be read with a "can't see the forest for the trees" approach that privileges a checklist of specific details over the ultimate goal of drawing closer to God.

Evans concludes that "The Bible does not present us with a single model for womanhood, and the notion that it contains a sorts of one-size-fits-all formula for how to be a woman of faith is a myth."
"Among the women praised in Scripture are warriors, widows, slaves, sister wives, apostles, teachers, concubines, queens, foreigners, prostitutes, prophets, mothers, and martyrs.  What makes these women's stories leap from the page is not the fact that they all conform to some kind of universal ideal, but that, regardless of the culture or context in which they found themselves, they lived their lives with valor.  They lived their lives with faith...there is no one right way to be a woman, no mold into which we must each cram ourselves--not if Deborah, Ruth, Rachel, Tamar, Vashti, Esther, Priscilla, Mary Magdalene, and Tabitha have anything to say about it."
Eshet Chayil! Woman of valor!


A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband "Master"
by Rachel Held Evans
ISBN: 9781595553676
Buy it from Amazon here: (paperback, ebook, audiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Friday Four, Part 32


My heart hurts with some of the awful news this week, so this Friday Four is dedicated to the good that exists in the world.  First up, Momastery's latest LOVE FLASH MOB:

Photo courtesy

Within less than 6 hours, and with each donor limited to giving only $25, more than $100,000 was raised to provide four beautiful children with service dogs specially trained to help them and their families meet their needs and keep them safe. Everything over the initial $100,000 will go to help more families in need. Read more about who's been helped in the past six months here.

Be kind and generous to each other. Even small actions can add up to something amazing and powerful.


This video from New Horizon Church captures our Sunday mornings so perfectly, except I think we have a little more yelling and grumpiness. And graham crackers instead of ice cream sandwiches.  And I don't own anything that has to be dry cleaned.

Be kind to each other, especially at church, where we're all trying to learn how to be better, kinder people. Don't compare your worst reality to someone else's perfectly groomed image. And don't judge.


This commercial for a Thai phone company made me bawl like a baby.

Be kind to each other, especially those who are particularly vulnerable.  A kind gesture can literally change their life as well as yours.


People are good, even when you might not expect them to be. Don't underestimate the goodness and honesty of others because of presuppositions and prejudices. A homeless man found a backpack full of money - more than $40,000 in travelers checks and cash - and flagged down a police officer to turn it in.

Photo courtesy Boston PD website,
The second act of this story gets even better.  The Good Samaritan's name was released: Glen James. The Boston Police Department honored him with a special citation. Someone who heard about the story set up a donation account on and already $100,000 has been donated. It's encouraging to see honesty and integrity being recognized and rewarded.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Book Review: The Secrets of Happy Families by Bruce Feiler

I have read literally dozens of books about raising children, and almost all of them have provided me with at least one or two ideas to help our family function more smoothly.  The Secrets of Happy Families, on the other hand, was a veritable treasure trove of great ideas. Grouped under three major headings ("Adapt All the Time", "Talk. A Lot", and "Go Out & Play"), and backed up by the latest research and science, these are simple, actionable steps anyone can take to improve any family.

Just as some people are blessed with greater musical talents or have an easier time grasping complex mathematical concepts than others, some people are born with a gift for parenting, for nurturing and raising children well.

I am not one of them. It does not come naturally to me.

Parenting is hard work any way you slice it.  And I think it's made harder by the odd expectation that if you're a generally good person who means well, loves his or her children, and doesn't intentionally abuse them, you'll automatically know how best to handle every parenting situation, your children will be well-behaved and obedient, roses will bloom beneath your feet, and life will be a bliss complete. (Oh, how I hate that song!)

Parenting is a skill, a vitally important one if you have children, and one that should be approached with at least as much care and planning as any other. When I decided I was going to learn how to can, I didn't just wing it.  All sorts of bad things can happen if you try: spoiled food, exploding glass jars, botulism, death.  So I asked people who already knew what they were doing to help me.  My mom, my mother-in-law, several friends from church, all were happy to share their expertise.  I gathered information from reputable sources: books, websites, videos. When the sources disagreed, I looked for more information, selected the method I thought was most likely to succeed based on my research and the experience of those who had tried before, and then I tried it myself.  There have been a few mishaps, but on the whole my canning experiences have been positive and successful.

I have a similar approach to parenting.  I ask other people about their experiences and share mine.  I read.  A lot.  Then I try to put some of what I've learned into practice. We've tried out several of the suggestions in The Secrets of Happy Families and they've been enlightening.  Let's just talk about one: weekly family meetings.

In any other area of my life, I've always recognized the need to regularly check in on how I was doing, having a conversation with the others involved on our goals, our plans, and our progress, but it had never really occurred to me to do this with the most important organization in my life: my family.  So now we meet once a week - usually on Sunday afternoons - and have a discussion about three questions:
1. What worked well in our family this week?
2. What went wrong in our family this week?
3. What will we work on this coming week?
We haven't been perfect - we've missed a week or three along the way - but it's remarkable to hear from our children what they consider to be our strengths and weaknesses as a family.  On their own, they've proposed that we work on not interrupting each other, on kids helping out with chores more, on listening better. And because they're involved in the process they're far more invested than they would be if my husband and I issued an edict from on high.  Mr. Feiler says it simply: "Solutions exist...empower the children."

With this focus on feedback comes the explicit recognition that things change and that's okay! "Even the best designed system will need to be reengineered midstream," Mr. Feiler assures us, but we can always keep working to improve our family.

I'm intrigued by Feiler's ideas regarding teaching kids about money, how to disagree and argue productively, and revamping date night. While I might not implement all of them, they've gotten me thinking about what we're currently doing, why we're doing it that way, and how we can do better. But what resonated most with me is his emphasis on "microsteps."  He says, "There's no grand defining action'; no single gesture; no magic lever you can pull or button you can press.  There's just a commitment to making incremental changes and accumulating 'small wins'...You don't need a wholesale makeover.  You just need to get started."  That's manageable.  I can do that!

While we sometimes place unrealistic expectations on ourselves, or feel pressure and judgment from others related to our parenting choices, Mr. Feiler's attitude is both comforting and empowering: "The easiest route to unhappiness is to do nothing...What's the secret to being a happy family? Try."

The Secrets of Happy Families: Improve Your Mornings, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smarter, Go Out and Play, and Much More
by Bruce Feiler
ISBN: 9780061778735
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, ebook, audiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Friday Four, Part 31


Last night my sister Meredith was recognized as one of Inland Business Catalyst's "20 under 40".  She'll be featured in the upcoming print issue of the magazine.  Here's an excerpt from their piece on her:
“When everyone else was obsessed with five-year plans, I just stopped trying to plan a career. Instead, I looked for jobs and programs that were interesting and challenging—learning Thai, studying manufacturing, teaching middle school theatre—even when they had nothing to do with my industry,” says Meredith Hutchison Hartley of Me2 Solutions. “It let me build my own career instead of mimicking someone else’s, and I’ve learned to be very comfortable going outside my comfort zone.”

She's pretty darn cool and I'm really proud of her!


I had several projects this week that kept my hands busy (don't even ask how ridiculously long it took me to sew eight patches on my son's new Boy Scout uniform), but left my mind free to wander, so I decided to watch a few documentaries and now I'm sharing them with you:

Done the Impossible

Firefly was one of the best television shows ever, a tragically short-lived sci-fi/western. Fox's cancellation was absolutely criminal, especially after the horrible way they promoted and treated the show, broadcasting the episodes out of order, moving the airing time around.  They didn't give a great show a fighting chance and the fans, who adopted the name of the Firefly rebels, Browncoats, took matters into their own hands.  It's a light-hearted tale of triumph against great odds. (And if you haven't watched the 14-episode series and the subsequently miraculous movie Serenity, you're seriously missing out.)


The Invisible War

My father served in the U.S. Navy for 18 years. My father-in-law also served in the Navy, my brother-in-law deployed to Afghanistan with the Army National Guard, and I have ancestors that have served in every war since the Revolution in 1776.  I am proud of my family's service and contributions to our country, but I was horrified to watch this documentary and see these brave women share their stories of the sexual harassment, assault and rape perpetrated on them by their brothers in arms, and their inability to receive any justice. Some positive steps have been made, but there's still a long way to go to make sure this never happens.


The Interrupters

In the heart of Chicago there is a group of incredibly brave people, people who have lived the gang life, spent years in prison paying for their bad decisions, and now want to make a positive difference in their communities and in the lives of the next generation.  They formed a group called CeaseFire whose goal is to eradicate violence and they call themselves the "interrupters" because they walk straight into the middle of intense situations to try to stop the violence.  It's both encouraging and disheartening to see how they influence some people to change their lives and are unable to reach others. You'll see the best and worst of humanity in this film and stand in awe of the interrupters' commitment to help others.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Book Review: Leaving Van Gogh by Carol Wallace

For the last two months of his life, Vincent van Gogh lived outside of Paris in the small town of Auvers, France, under the care of Dr. Gachet.  In Carol Wallace's novel Leaving Van Gogh, Dr. Gachet narrates the events of that short time period and provides a window into van Gogh's mind toward the end of his tragically short life.

Vincent van Gogh is such an intriguing character.  He was undeniably an artistic genius, though many at the time didn't recognize his brilliance because he was too far out of the mainstream of his day.  His relationship with Dr. Gachet is likewise fascinating.  While they only knew each other for a brief time, it was during those critical days leading up to van Gogh's death and it's impossible not to be curious about how it affected them both.  As a specialist in mental illnesses, Dr. Gachet would have been familiar with cases like van Gogh's, perhaps thinking he had some particular wisdom to share, or expertise that could yield some helpful insights.

Instead, it was the friendship, not the professional relationship, between van Gogh and Gachet that seemed to have the great impact on both of them.  Dr. Gachet relates while taking a walk with Vincent:
In fact, one of the profound effects Vincent van Gogh had on my life was that he changed the way I saw the world.  To this day, I look at the shadow beneath a bank of willows and see the brown, the green, the purple tones together, contrasting with the yellow, green, and even orange of the leaves.  I notice patterns in the windows of city buildings or the ties of a railroad track, and I am always aware of the relations between colors, like the way a brick wall heightens the intensity of a green vine.  I have seen much more beauty in my surroundings since that summer Vincent spent with us.
Juxtaposition and contrast is a recurring theme.  Madness and genius, calm and fury, companionship and loneliness, love and hate, beauty and ugliness all appear wrapped up together, each heightening the intensity of the other.

Historical fiction can be enthralling.  The amount of research that must go in to writing a book set in a specific place, at a specific time, when specific people lived, worked, loved, and died there, is mind-blowing.  When it's done well, the reader can truly feel as if he or she has traveled back in time.  The novel is rife with period details as well as details about Gachet, van Gogh, his extended family, and his paintings.  While reading, I liked to stop and find a picture of the paintings being described.  (Here's a link to several of them that the author collected in one place.)

Leaving Van Gogh transported me to Auvers-sur-Oise in the summer of 1890.  I felt like I was observing van Gogh as he painted, struggling against the depression and confusion in his own mind, finally despairing when the art stop flowing. This book is beautiful, brave, and impressionist, just like the best of van Gogh.


Leaving Van Gogh
by Carol Wallace
ISBN: 9781400068791
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcoverebook, audiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Monday, September 9, 2013

Book Review: City of Bones by Cassandra Clare

Cassandra Clare's Mortal Instruments saga is the next "big thing" in YA fantasy. And it reads pretty well for YA fantasy, really.  Lots of action, teen angst, a love triangle or two.  But I spent the entire book noticing the parallels with every major YA fantasy series of the past decade (and before!) and wondering if there's really nothing new under the sun or if Clare's offering is uniquely derivative and unoriginal.

A couple of the young women I work with at church were raving about this series, planning on going to the midnight showing of the new movie and everything, and I like to have a clue what they're talking about occasionally. (Makes me feel a little less old and stodgy.)  I had heard that City of Bones started as Harry Potter fan-fiction, so I'll admit to being a bit skeptical from the start that there would be much that was original in the book.  Right from the beginning, similarities started jumping out.

A normal girl named Clary discovers she can see things others can't and realizes that she isn't who she thought she was, that her mother didn't tell her the whole truth about their past.  Her mother is, of course, kidnapped before Clary can return to confront her with this information and Clary herself is attacked as well before impressively fighting off a demon single-handedly, despite never having fought one before.  She is taken in by Shadowhunters, demon fighters, who are part of this unseen-by-mundanes mystical world and begins to learn the truth about herself and her part in this battle for the fate of the world.

The big bad is named Valentine (not Voldemort).  His followers are called the Circle (rather than Death Eaters).  Normal human beings are mundanes or mundies (not muggles).  The ultimate quest is to find three powerful magical objects called the Mortal Instruments (instead of the Deathly Hallows).  There are even flying motorcycles (but no Hagrid)!

It also turns out that the Shadowhunters were created when angels mixed their blood with humans, creating Nephilim, angel/human hybrids (there's the Unearthly series). And, of course, vampires and werewolves exist in this world (hat tip to Twilight) as do demons, witches and warlocks (hi Buffy!).  There's even a Star Wars-like twist toward the end (we're really kicking it old school now!).  It just seemed like Clare decided to cram bits of every fantasy world she's watched, read, or loved over her lifetime into a single world, which is fine. But it's not very original.

The writing itself is not particularly original either.  Lots of overused cliches and predictable plot turns. Terror tasted "sharp and coppery on her tongue like old pennies."  Her dreams "bore her along like a leaf tossed in a current."

And I'll freely admit that I was not inclined to like the books any better after this exchange early on:
"Tell me, is he [Jace] always really rude, or does he save that for mundanes?"
"Oh, he's rude to everyone," said Isabelle airly. "It's what makes him so damn sexy."
Can we please not perpetuate the ridiculous idea that rudeness = sexiness? That's just really not a quality that should be reinforced as desirable in anyone, but certainly not in a setting that implies that being treated badly is okay as long as the one treating you badly is "hot".  Rudeness is not and should not be a turn-on. Ugh.

I know this review sounds a bit down on the book, but all in all, it's really not a dreadful read.  There is a formula for YA fantasy fiction that Rowling, Meyer and others have tapped in to very successfully.  Clare is simply using that same formula and finding a measure of that same success, but not a particularly intriguing or original way.  And I'm just not interested enough to pick up the next five books in the series, though I don't expect that will put much of a dent in Ms. Clare's readership.


City of Bones
by Cassandra Clare
ISBN: 9781416914280
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Friday, September 6, 2013

The Friday Four, Part 30


So I'm one of those lame moms who always - and I really mean always - forgets to get the first-day-of-school picture of the kids bright-eyed and bushy-tailed before school starts.  Today I did manage to get one when they got home, and it only took a dozen tries and a bribe of warm chocolate chip cookies to get them to look this good:

First day of school!

Our garden is (over-)producing numerous varieties of tomatoes and squash, so I really need to get busy canning and otherwise using them all up.  I generally can some stewed tomatoes, maybe some salsa.  I have a great zucchini relish recipe courtesy of some friends from church.  And I try to give away as much squash as humanly possible.  Any other suggestions on what to do with all this produce?

Anyone want some squash?  Anyone?


(I just snagged this pic, so you can't
actually click on it to ask a question.
Click on the link to the right instead.)
The "Ask a Mormon" feature on Spokane Faith & Values just went up last Wednesday and it's already generated quite a few interesting questions, which I'm trying to work through as quickly as I can around everything else I have going on.  My first two columns have already been published.  One about capital punishment and another about cremation.  (Don't worry - the other ones so far don't have anything to do with death!)

Feel free to submit a question if you'd like to!


Last week I officially finished the Couch to 5K program and then I ran my first official 5K on Labor Day. Except I was late, so I didn't really get to warm up and I think I might have shin splints now, and someone removed one of the arrows along the route so a bunch of us missed a turn and ended up running only about 2.5 miles instead of a full 5K. And because of missing that turn, I had a monster hill to go up and I could only run half of it, had to walk the rest. Honestly, I'm a little disappointed.

But on the bright(?) side, an older gentleman who was running near me asked if my mom and dad were waiting for me at the finish line. When I laughed and said my husband and children were, he did a double take and said, "I must have mistaken you for someone else. I thought you were one of the youth in my ward. You don't look old enough to have a husband and kids." 35, folks. I'm 35. But I guess I look 16 when I'm red-faced and running?

(And I "forgot" the camera so, no, you don't get to see pictures of my sweaty, stinky, gasping red-faced self!)

Thursday, September 5, 2013

If You're Looking for Some Good Picture Books...

I don't often review children's books on this blog, though I read quite a few (I have three kids, after all).  But I recently found several that I thoroughly enjoyed and wanted to pass along.

Virginia Wolf by Kyo Maclear, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault

Two sisters, Virginia and Vanessa, have decidedly opposite temperaments.  One day Virginia wakes up in a "wolfish" mood and Vanessa does everything she can think of to help her sister out of her funk.  I love the relationship between these sisters and the love they show for each other.  The pictures perfectly illustrate the two sisters' contrasting moods, as well as the shift that occurs toward the end.  (And I love that the book is loosely based on the real Virginia Woolf and her sister Vanessa.)

Mirette on the High Wire by Emily Arnold McCully

This book held my boys entranced through several readings.  Mirette is the daughter of a widow who runs a boardinghouse in 19th century Paris.  One day a man named Bellini arrives, describing himself as a "retired high-wire walker" and keeps mostly to himself until the afternoon when Mirette walks out to the courtyard and catches him crossing on the laundry line!  She begs him to teach her and persists, despite his discouragement.  Seeing her determination, he agrees to teach her.  Delightful story about a girl who works hard, achieves her dream and inspires others.

The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco

I get choked up every time I read this autobiographical book.  Ms. Polacco tells the story of her Russian ancestors who came to the United States and made a quilt to remind them of their homeland. Through six generations of women, the quilt served as a tablecloth, picnic blanket, wedding huppa, baby wrap, lap quilt, bedspread, and a cape or tent in Patricia's childhood imagination. The Keeping Quilt stirringly highlights the cyclical nature of life as children are born and grow up, get married and grow old, and die.  The artful use of color emphasizes the power of the quilt as a symbol connecting their family throughout generations, stretching on and on.  This is a definite favorite.

Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney

Little Alice loves and admires her grandfather and wants to be just like him.  She, too, wants to travel to faraway places and live beside the sea. That's not enough, her grandfather tells her.  She must also "do something to make the world more beautiful."  As Alice grows up, she becomes Miss Rumphius, the librarian, and lives by the ocean.  She travels to tropical islands, tall mountains, jungles, and deserts, and then settles down, again by the sea.  Puzzled by what she can do to make the world more beautiful, she finally stumbles upon the answer, and inspires the younger generation to do the same.

Imogene's Antlers by David Small

Love, love, love this ridiculous little book!  Imogene wakes up one day to discover she now has antlers, and not inconspicuous ones.  It's a great exercise in imagination; just how would your life be affected by the sudden appearance of obnoxiously large antlers?  How would you get dressed?  How would you get through the doorway?  What useful tasks could you complete with antlers? And watch out for the chandelier!  The next morning the antlers are gone, but Imogene isn't quite back to normal...  The illustrations are occasionally laugh-out-loud funny and have great specific details that highlight the hilarity of the story.  Great book to read aloud with kids.

The Secret World of Hildegard by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Jeanette Winter

This beautifully illustrated biography introduced me to a woman I have never heard of before. (That's what I get for not being Catholic!)  Hildegard was a German abbess in the 12th century who was remarkably accomplished.  From a young age she received divine visions, which eventually were written down and presented to the Pope.  He approved of her visions and they began to be shared far and wide.  Despite her fame, she humbly declared, "I am just a poor, little woman...I am just a feather on the breath of God."  She composed beautiful music, she wrote widely on many scientific and religious topics, she became a respected preacher, she conversed with kings.  What an impressive woman!

Whoever You Are by Mem Fox, illustrated by Leslie Staub

One of the most important messages we can teach our children is simply and stunningly portrayed in this short picture book.  "Little one, whoever you are, wherever you are, there are little ones just like you all over the world."  There may be many differences between people, "but inside, their hearts are just like yours." Bright, almost geometric, illustrations dazzle the eye and with a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic cast, emphasize the message that despite our differences, the similarities between us are stronger.  "Joys are the same, and love is the same.  Pain is the same, and blood is the same. Smiles are the same, and hearts are just the same--wherever they are, wherever you are, wherever we are, all over the world."  Amen.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Book Review: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

I have put off writing this review for so long - two months actually - hoping that some new insight would occur to me to explain why I felt the way I did about this book.  So many people, including several whose opinions I highly respect, loved Never Let Me Go and I just didn't.  Perhaps it's one of those books, like Ender's Game, that I just have to read again to fully appreciate.  But I don't really want to.

It was just so...hopeless.  (**spoiler alert**)  One group of people being dehumanized by another, and in this case literally being used for spare parts.  It's happened over and over again in history and is still happening today.  Do we as a species seriously never learn?  "After the war, in the early fifties, when the great breakthroughs in science followed one after the other so rapidly, there wasn't time to take stock, to ask the sensible questions."  (Reminds me of the line from Jurassic Park: "Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could that they didn't stop to think if they should.")  There's always time to ask the sensible questions, to think about the implications, to consider the possible ramifications.  At least there should be for sentient beings with enlightened self-interest.

Maybe I just prefer my futuristic fantasies to have a bit more optimism to them, like Star Trek boldly going where no one has gone before.  Ok, so that's not entirely true, because I'm a fan of the Hunger Games series and that's pretty bleak and big on the dehumanization of one group by another.

Maybe it's the placid acceptance by the students of their fate that rattles me, their seeming willingness to remain "in the shadows" where society wants them to stay hidden.  Rage against the machine!  Fight for your right to be recognized as fully human!  Don't just lay down and take it!

Maybe the story hit too close to home with the depressing sense that nothing ever really changes, it just cycles around and around and back and forth.  "You have to accept that sometimes that's how things happen in this world.  People's opinions, their feelings, they go one way, then the other. It just so happens you grew up at a certain point in this process."  But I don't really believe that, though I occasionally get frustrated with the slow rate of changes I want to see happen; I believe we are progressing and growing.  Slowly - so, so slowly sometimes - but it happens.

Maybe it's simply the fact that I read it on my Kindle and that often seems to make my reading flow less smoothly.

For whatever reason, Never Let Me Go was not the enjoyable, meaningful read for me that it was for so many others.


Never Let Me Go
by Kazuo Ishiguro
ISBN: 9781400078776
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Monday, September 2, 2013

Book Review: Brian's Return by Gary Paulsen

I picked this one up out of curiosity, to see how Mr. Paulsen got Brian back to the wilderness. (Besides, it's short and a quick read.) You can see from my previous Goodreads reviews that this series has been hit and miss for me.  Brian's Return, the fourth installment of the saga, was mostly a hit.

After his extended period of time alone in the wilderness, Brian has a hard time readjusting to "real life," even after being back for more than a year.  In what would undoubtedly be diagnosed today as a reaction triggered by post-traumatic stress disorder, Brian seriously injures another teenage boy, Carl, who makes the mistake of swinging a fist at him after hurting two of Brian's friends.  Brian's instincts take over.
In that instant Brian totally reverted.  He was no longer a boy walking into a pizza parlor.  He was Brian back in the woods, Brian with the moose, Brian being attacked--Brian living because he was quick and focused and intent on staying alive--and Carl was the threat, the thing that had to be stopped, attacked.  Destroyed.
As a result of the attack, Brian starts seeing a counselor, Caleb, a seven-foot-tall, blind retired cop, who gets Brian to articulate the beauty he found in the woods and his longing to return and to reconnect with the person he was in the wilderness.  Finally, one day Caleb "sighed and said, 'It's time for you to go back, to find what you're looking for.'"  Brian "had to know what it was that pulled him and made him feel empty."  Caleb helps to convince his parents, Brian makes the arrangements to visit the Cree family who found him, and he's off, back to the woods he so desperately misses.

Of course, the woods have to re-teach Brian a few lessons he had forgotten.  The first day, a deer leaps into his canoe, capsizing it and sending all his gear into the lake - fortunately nothing is damaged.  The next night, a storm hits.  The wind collapses his tent, which he hadn't secured, and sends it tumbling down the embankment with Brian still in it, knocking him out.
He had forgotten the most important thing about living in the wilderness, the one thing he'd thought he would never forget--expect the unexpected.  What you didn't think would get you, would get you.  Plan on the worst and be happy when it didn't come.
Brian, however, quickly re-learns these lessons and finds a peace in the woods that escaped him back in civilization, deciding to continue exploring on his own for a while instead of heading directly for the Cree family.  I would have liked to read about more of his adventures, but this is where Paulsen decided to close the story.

Paulsen's "Author's Note" at the end provides interesting insights into how Paulsen drew from his own experiences to write Brian's stories, including his ongoing search for solitude and wilderness over his lifetime.  The Brian Saga is practically a love note to the wilderness. The way Paulsen describes what Brian sees, hears, feels, and does, it's evident that it is close to his heart.


Brian's Return
by Gary Paulsen
ISBN: 9780440413796
Buy it from Amazon here: (paperback, hardcover, ebook, audiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).